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  • Writer's pictureChurch of St. Mark

From the Heart of the Shepherd

By Fr. David Hottinger, PES - Pastor

From the bulletin for The Seventh Sunday of Easter - Ascension (May 12, 2024)

Parish School of Prayer, Pt 7: Self-Denial (Part 1!)

Why would I not do something if I like it? 

That’s a question this world has a very hard time answering. First of all, because it never asks the question. Second, because it goes against its most fundamental principle: “I want what I want! I do whatever I please!” For the ethos of the world is, at bottom, one of slavery to the self, according to the principle that “you are slaves of the one who you obey” (Rom 6:16). 

But for freedom Christ has set us free. Therefore, “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions!” cries St. Paul, “And do not present the parts of your bodies to sin as weapons for wickedness, but present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and the parts of your bodies to God as weapons for righteousness!” (Rom 6:12-13). To “present ourselves to God” we must first be freed from slavery to our passions. Freed from ourselves.

Thus the essential role of self-denial in the spiritual life. Our Lord did not mince words. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24).  The logic is simple. In Adam we all sinned, following our own will in disobedience to God’s. In Christ we are saved, provided we disobey (or deny) our own will in obedience to God’s. Just as you parents have to say ‘no’ to your children a dozen times a day, lest their untrained wanting lead to bad decision making, so each of us has to say ‘no’ to the spoiled child within.

St. Paul employs a different comparison: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I … drive [in some translations, punish] my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27). Through self-denial, the spirit comes to rule over the flesh (and not vice-versa), freeing us to run in the life of the Spirit and obey the divine will. And so “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).

Self-denial can come in as many forms as we can have wants. You have an itch on the tip of your nose. You want to rub it. But you don’t! Or, at least, you postpone, enduring the discomfort and showing the body who is boss. You didn’t catch the score of the Timberwolves game. You want to look up the recap online, or ask a coworker. Oh, but you don’t! You mortify that curiosity for spiritual gain, waiting until God in His mercy deigns to bring news of the victory to your ears. You experience a sudden urge during the Mass to open up the bulletin and read the pastor’s article… well, I think you get the point. 

Now, perhaps you are thinking: “Father, this series is supposed to be about prayer. What is the connection between self-denial and prayer? Or are you out of ideas and simply starting to address random topics in the spiritual life?” 

My dear reader: how can we hope to pray without a habit of self-denial? It requires discipline to recollect ourselves for the space of five minutes, and much more to adore the Lord for the whole of an hour. And if we want to sincerely pray the Mass, which requires us to adore our Eucharistic Lord, “lift up our hearts,” and pray “Thy will be done,” we must be capable of denying our fidgety bodies, focusing our straying minds, and rejecting our sinful inclinations of the will. And self-denial is the only solution if we are going to pray on those days and at those times when we don’t feel like it. 

And so I ask you, potential person of prayer: how will you practice self-denial this week? Start with the low-hanging fruit: the things you are already obliged to do but don’t like, or the things you should really give up but are attached to. Keep flexing that muscle, however, and in time your whole life will become the prayer “They will be done” and therefore an act of worship, according to Paul’s invitation in Romans 12:12: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Amen!

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